Across the Floor: Undergraduate Dance Education at UO

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Life as a dance student means dedication and passion. University senior Olivia Shaw spends hours each week in the dance studio for practice.
Article and photos by Mary Callie Gisler.

EUGENE, Ore. — The third floor of the Gerlinger Annex is alive with motion and rhythm. Behind the closed door of one spacious studio come the low hum of music and the unified pound of feet on the dance floor. Next door, you might find University of Oregon (UO) senior Olivia Shaw is lost in a rehearsal of her own. It is where she spends hours of her time, perfecting each turn and jump until the movement is second nature.

Gerlinger Annex is home to the university’s dance department, a niche of dancers, choreographers and teachers dedicated to the art of movement. For dance students like Shaw, it is also a second home where hours of practice and performance are spent.

“The culture is supportive no matter what,” the university senior says. “We do work independently on our own research, yet we strive for a community that is uplifting and inclusive.”

Making Dance Academic 

Life as a dance student requires just as much time in the classroom as it does in the dance studio. Students enrolled in the major dedicate four years of their college career to 72 dance credits and 24 elective credits needed to complete the major. While the program places an emphasis on modern dance technique, students can explore a wide range of disciplines and genres like ballroom, swing dance, tango, jazz and ballet.

“The performance and composition courses primarily surround modern dance performance,” says Jenifer Craig, who serves as head of the dance department and faculty member.  “Our students are required to take ballet every term and they have to take other [genres of dance] besides modern and ballet. They have to find their way around a variety of techniques.”

The degree program requires a combination of lower and upper division courses in dance improvisation, composition, production, dance kinesiology and dance history. The department also offers a 32-credit dance minor that includes technique, composition and production classes, along with dance history and science courses.

During their course of study, students have the ability to focus on special areas of interest like show production and choreography. The student concert held each year in May allows students to produce their own routines and show. Though according to Craig, before they are eligible, students are required to take a full year of dance composition courses, along with a dance production course that teaches students the fundamentals of working and producing theater shows.

The department is built up of seven full time faculty members, along with 10 graduating teaching fellows (GTFs) and numerous adjacent staff who teach in the school part-time. The dance program also hosts its own full-time music director and musicians, which according to Craig, is not the case with all undergraduate dance programs.

The department’s facilities also help foster the academic and creative growth of its students. The Annex is made up four dance studios, each with a complete sound system; a media and technology suite with computers, video and audio equipment; a library and conference room for academic and special events; and the M. Frances Dougherty Dance Theatre, complete with a full lighting system and stage equipment, that seats 225 guests.

Establishing Creative Roots Through History

By 1895, the University of Oregon offered its first physical education classes. By 1911, those courses expanded to include aesthetic dances, according to a 1993 article written by Craig that was published in Oregon Humanities magazine. The dance program rooted itself slowly, but sure.

When the university founded the nation’s first School of Physical Education in 1920, it incorporated a dance specialization, along with dance courses required for all physical education majors. The course offerings drew a large base of female students to the campus.

Eventually the developing dance program would find its home with the Department of Music, founded in 1886 and eventually transforming to the the School of Music in 1900. It welcomed the university’s dance instructors to its faculty in 1991.

Dr. M. Frances Dougherty was a pioneer of the dance program’s success, becoming the head of the dance program in 1959. A fully accredited dance major was established through the university that same year. It would become one of the oldest dance departments in the western United States.

By the time Dougherty retired in 1975, the dance program has expanded to include a master’s degree in dance. The transforming dance program later joined the department of music, renamed the School of Music and Dance in 2005.

The school offered a variety of genres through the years, but in present day, the courses have been founded on the principals of modern dance. “It is a modern dance program at the core. The performance and composition courses primarily surround modern dance performance,” Craig says.

In 2013, the UO Department of Dance offers both graduate and graduate degrees. Students dedicate themselves to concentrations in choreography-performance, dance education, dance history and dance science.

Learning Through Student Opportunity

For university senior Olivia Shaw, life as a dance major means hours each week in the studio for classes and rehearsal. Sometimes more than 30 hours a week, according to Shaw. But a complete experience in the dance program is more than just hours of practice.

In addition 96 dance credits, undergraduate dance students are required to finish an internship and senior project before they graduate. According to Craig, a strong emphasis is placed upon internship experience.

Students might intern with a local theater like the Hult Center to assist in the production of a show. Others work as teaching assistants in introductory dance courses to learn the fine details of teaching dance in an academic setting.

“I’m doing a teaching assistant internship, along with a public relations internship with the Repertory dance company,” Shaw says. “These are required, but also incredibly helpful. It’s about developing more tools to have in the bag.”

The dance department also fosters student creativity and performance through numerous performance groups, shows and exhibitions each year. The School of Music and Dance holds approximately 200 performances in Eugene annually for UO students and faculty, including faculty concerts and department productions.

Dance Oregon, Dance Africa and the University of Oregon Repertory Dance Company (UORDC) are the premier student-run dance groups, offering UO dance majors an opportunity to hone their performance skills.

Shaw, who is a member of both UORDC and student group Dance Oregon, says her extracurricular involvement has sharpened and enriched the skills she has learned through her dance education. The extracurricular build a resume and performance experience, much like a journalism or architecture student would build a portfolio.

From its early days on the university campus, the UO Department of Dance has cultivated a undergraduate education program built on technique, composition, performance and student involvement. Dance majors like Shaw prepare for a creative industry not only through their time in class, but also the professional and extracurricular activities.

For Shaw, an educational background in dance is an important step towards her professional future. Though it was also about growth as an individual and an artist. “Movement is often how I speak, and how I learn, and how I grow,” she says.


Dancing as a Non-Major: Q&A with UO Student Eric Severson

DSC_0137Finding a balance between work and play while in college can be difficult, but University of Oregon (UO) student Eric Severson found the happy medium when he became involved with the university’s dance program. After transferring to the UO as a sophomore and starting work on a sociology degree, Severson uses the dance courses as a way to creatively express himself while relieving stress and staying active. The university student shared more about his experience as an informal dance student:

What has taking dance classes for enrichment done for you personally?
I love to preform so I think this is just another way to find another way to connect myself even more. In the future, I think this will be a useful way to connect with myself even things get stressful. I can put on some music and just dance.

Why did you not pursue a dance major or minor?
I love dancing and the program we have at the UO. I looked at and considered the dance program heavily as a second major, but honestly, it’s too much work. I also looked at what went into a dance minor. You might as well just be a dance major, because that’s how much work you put into it. It can be a big challenge and you have to have the dedication to succeed.

What inspired you to become involved with the UO dance program?
I always wanted to take dance classes as a kid but never had the time, so college allowed me the chance. My dance exposure started at Oregon State University (OSU). When I transferred to the University of Oregon, I wanted to keep going. I’ve taken both jazz and modern dance, along with African dance and a few lectures that focus on dance history.

How would you describe the UO dance program and its culture?
The culture there is great, but it definitely has its competitive side to it. There are people who all want to be dance majors for different reasons, and it’s because of those competitive reasons you can feel pressure. But everyone in the school is very open and very accepting of new people – even if you’re just taking classes for fun.

How would you describe the school’s faculty and staff?
Wonderful and extremely knowledgeable. They help explain movement and dance in ways that make sense across the board. Each professor has their own way of teaching, but they all have a way of explaining what they want and getting what they want out of a range of people.


In the Studio: A Photo Tour of the UO Dance School

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Gerlinger Annex, tucked between Gerlinger Hall and the Pioneer Cemetary, is home to the University of Oregon’s School of Dance and its students. Photo (c) Mary Callie Gisler.

DSC_0424The three story building is home to faculty offices, fully-equipped dance studios and various academic meeting space and classrooms. Photo (c) Mary Callie Gisler.

DSC_0657University senior and dance student Olivia Shaw stretches before an afternoon of practice in Gerlinger Hall. Photo (c) Mary Callie Gisler.

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Each of Shaw’s practices are dedicated to perfecting movements and strengthening technique. Photo (c) Mary Callie Gisler.

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At the top of a jump, Shaw focuses on perfecting the landing only seconds away. The dancer started her career with gymnastics as a child. Photo (c) Mary Callie Gisler.

DSC_0585In addition to the hours spend in the studio, Shaw is also a member of the premier dance group Dance Oregon. Photo (c) Mary Callie Gisler.

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Shaw also works as a teaching assistant in a Modern II dance course, learning the techniques of eventually teaching dance. Photo (c) Mary Callie Gisler.

DSC_0731At the end of a floor routine, Shaw takes a moment to catch her breath. For her, every moment spent dancing is a happy one. Photo (c) Mary Callie Gisler.

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